While it may be hard to fathom, modern fuel tankers that transport millions of gallons of oil across the Arctic are sometimes forced to rely on ocean depth measurements reported by the explorer and mapmaker Captain James Cook back in 1778!
According to NOAA Corps Commander James Crocker, commanding officer of the NOAA Ship Fairweather, “Much of Alaska’s coastal area has never had full-bottom bathymetric surveys to measure water depths.” Fortunately, the Fairweather will leave its home port of Ketchikan, Alaska, this week on a 30-day reconnaissance mission that will help NOAA prioritize its efforts to update navigational charts in the Arctic.
Crocker, who is also the chief scientist of this preliminary survey, explains that the Fairweather is setting out to check sparse soundings (a nautical term for depth measurements) along a busy maritime transit corridor from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to the Canadian border. Commercial shippers, tankers, passenger vessels, and fishing fleets employ navigational charts produced by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey to navigate the 1,500-nautical-mile route. Many of the charts, however, depict sporadic depth readings reported by private vessels in decades and, indeed, centuries past. Those vessels lacked precise positioning equipment and experts who knew how to take accurate measurements.
Plans, Priorities, and a Scientific Process
In June 2011, NOAA issued its Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, which outlines the agency’s efforts to update hydrographic data for the fairways, approaches, and ports along the Alaskan coast. With nearly 2,220 miles of low tidal shoreline in Alaska, the sheer size of the task demands a rigorous scientific process.
The Fairweather’s August voyage will help NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey set priorities for future full-coverage surveys. Tomorrow’s mariners, using modern charts created from precise data made possible with new technologies, will always celebrate Captain Cook for his daring explorations. But they’ll rely on NOAA’s new start in surveying and charts for their safety.
The NOAA Ship Fairweather is part of the fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed, and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.